Essay//Recognizing Child Abuse as a Public Issue: Insights from Social Cultural & Feminist Perspectives

children, road, distant

The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children”  Nelson Mandela.[1]

In the Netherlands, approximately 119.000 children grow up in a context of child abuse every year.[2] In fact, over a lifetime, 1 in 4 Dutch inhabitants have experienced or still experience child abuse.[3] The potential detrimental effects child abuse has on human development and health are widely known.[4],[5] Indeed, pediatricians claim that child abuse is a major public health problem and Dr. Burke argues that trauma and elevated stress levels in childhood correlate with the development of twelve diseases later in life, such as mental illnesses, addiction, and even cancer.[6] The significance of tackling child abuse at the source is thus of great relevance and importance because it affects the wellbeing of such a large proportion in society.

In general, child abuse and neglect can take on several forms, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. The definitions vary across countries and are related to cultural norms of violence. This paper upholds the following definition by The Netherlands Youth Institute;

“Any form of threatening or violent interaction of a physical, psychological or sexual nature that threatens a minor, that is actively or passively imposed on the minor by parents or other persons to whom the minor is in a dependent or unfree relationship with, which causes or will cause serious harm to the minor in the form of physical or psychological injury.”[7]

This essay aims to investigate what broader societal pathologies underline the high prevalence of child abuse. Doing so this essay moves away from the tendency to regard family violence as a private trouble. Instead, I attempt to show how parents’ abusive behaviour is largely informed by social structures of power, norms and values, and culture. Through the investigation of these, I hope to unite the affected public and to create a platform for social change. For the purpose of this paper, I will first illustrate why child abuse is a public issue, after which I will engage in two perspectives: social cultural and feminist perspectives. The social cultural perspective questions how broader social cultural values, norms, and laws are implicated in child abuse, whereas the feminist perspective brings forward the aspects of impositions, expectations, and systems of power and their interrelation in the pathologies of child abuse. Subsequently I show what kind of policy avenues these two perspectives potentially point towards and come to a conclusion.

Child abuse as a Public Issue

When we look at the history of child abuse, we see that the phenomenon is something of all times. We see that the issue has travelled and has been translated into policies across space and time.[8] Historically, children have had little rights with regards to their parents. For example, in Ancient Rome it was legal to kill your own children, and, in the Bible, Abraham nearly kills his son.[9] It was not until 1962, when paediatricians Henry Kempe and colleagues published a study on the prevalence of ‘the battered child syndrome’, that physical violence towards children became something of public attention amongst countries such as the United States (US), Denmark, and Sweden.[10] Also in the 1970s, radical feminist movements reinterpreted incest as sexual violence towards women and children.[11] The Netherlands needed more time. In fact, in the 1990s Dutch child protection services still judged parents by discerning between deserved and undeserved slaps and it was only in 2007, twenty-eight years later than Sweden, when violence towards children was officially illegal.[12] Due to these developments, physical and sexual child abuse became “a putative condition or situation that is labelled a problem in the arenas of public discourse and action”.[13]

Nevertheless, the prevalence of child abuse remains high in the Netherlands. This is because, according to van Beek, child abuse lies on the margins of what is defined as public and private.[14] But, even though it is easy to conceptualize child abuse as a private trouble because it often takes place within the sphere of the home, C.W. Mills’ concept of the sociological imagination enables us to see that child abuse is a public issue.[15] Child abuse would be a personal trouble if out of 100.000 children only one child is abused. But it becomes a public issue when in the Netherlands 1 in 4 inhabitants have experienced a form of child abuse.[16] These numbers encourage us to recognise that this individual experience is in fact part of a larger social phenomenon. Given that the family is the primary locus of socialization and stabilisation of characters[17], we can start to imagine what effect it has on the functioning of society if a quarter of ‘the people in general’ have been abused in this important phase of life.[18] It then becomes crucial to examine what broader societal forces are implicated in this issue in order to point towards a solution.

The public I wish to address here entails adults and children, that are affected by physical, psychological, and sexual violence at a young age, but also the politicians, child protection services, legislators, and other social institutions that construct the context in which child abuse occurs. This is in line with Dewey’s notion of a public, where a negative externality or issue calls a public into being.[19]

Child Abuse: The Social Cultural Perspective 

The prevalence of child abuse has been related by some sociologists to broader social-cultural factors, such as attitudes towards violence.[20],[21],[22] Here the basic line of thought is that societal symbols, norms, and values, interact with the everyday micro actions within the family. For example, in an extensive cross-cultural study, Douglas shows that norms and values within a culture influence the approval of corporal punishment, which is “the act of inflicting physical pain without injury on a child in an effort to correct the child’s behaviour”.[23] Moreover, the study displays that those who have been through a high amount of familial socialisation of violence were more likely to support spanking children as a form of punishment.[24]

Murray Straus, who has spent almost a lifetime researching the social factors that determine intrafamily violence, shows in his 1986 study that the decrease in rates of violence between 1975 and 1986 parallels with “changes in the family, in the economy, in the social acceptability of family violence, in alternatives available to women, in social control processes, and in the availability of treatment and prevention services”.[25] In other words, societal changes in norms and values regarding violence and family structure, impact the rates of physical violence towards children.

Similar results can be found in the following case. In Sweden, which was the first country to explicitly ban corporal punishment of minors in 1979, the abolishment was followed by a public education program and it was expected that, “through its educational function, the law would increase awareness of children’s rights to physical integrity, and of the problem of child physical maltreatment”.[26] Durrant and colleagues evaluated the effectiveness of the law and found that that the amount of violence towards children rapidly declined since this legal reform.[27],[28]  Rates of severe violence towards children, homicides due to child abuse, and positive attitudes to physical punishment have significantly dropped. Even if Swedish parents did strike their children, they are more likely to realize that this was unnecessary and ineffective.[29] It is important to note that despite these findings in Sweden, there remain instances of severe child abuse, though these rates are relatively low when compared to other countries.[30]

In the Netherlands, cultural values of negotiation are reflected in discussions between parents on the appropriateness of physical punishment of children, despite the fact that physical violence towards children has been illegal by Dutch law since 2007. According to van den Berg,

“egalitarian forms of interaction were so much preferred by teachers, parenting coaches and social workers that in one case I witnessed, not even slapping children was denounced. Even slapping children (defined by practitioners as an authoritarian technique) thus became the object of a negotiation”.[31]

This example shows that particular cultural norms and values can affect attitudes towards, and perhaps the prevalence of, physical violence towards children. Also, this case stresses the importance of accompanying public education and law enforcement with law reform, since the latter alone still potentially leads to physical child abuse to be negotiable amongst parents.

The strength of investigating child abuse from a social cultural perspective is that the perspective centres around the question of how societal forces are implicated in the prevalence and endorsement of child mistreatment, even though these nations officially declare to enhance efforts to reduce these forms of family violence.[32] To some extent however, this perspective does fail to explain why a minority of individuals remain abusive towards their children when they have been brought up in context in which intrafamily violence is not the norm, such as in Sweden.[33] In other words, anomalies occur and it remains hard to account for those from a social cultural framework. To tackle this limitation of individual pathologies it might be useful to take an interdisciplinary approach where one looks into psychological and social-psychological studies. Despite this complication, the social cultural perspective offers insights into the significance of societal changes in norms, values, and legislations of combatting child abuse.


Child Abuse: Feminist Perspectives

What is less discussed in most of the studies mentioned in the social cultural perspective is the interplay between gender issues and child abuse. However, feminist perspectives are important to our understanding of child abuse as a public issue since feminism played a big role in uncovering the debate on one of the biggest taboos of family violence: child sexual abuse.[34]

Before the 1920s, only social workers and volunteers concerned themselves with incest, however due to “an active reinterpretation of child sexual abuse” radical  feminists revived the debate in the 1970s.[35] The issue was framed as a form of domestic violence,[36],[37] which was conceptualised as “a social and collective problem that reflects the unequal gender power relations in patriarchal societies in a larger framework of patriarchy”.[38] Radical feminists maintained that this patriarchal order deemed males more likely to dominate women and children. Due to this power imbalance and the fact that men were socialised differently in sexual expression, it follows in this context that males are more likely to sexually abuse children than women would.[39],[40]

However, as we know, there is not one fixed form of feminism, “instead there are multiple feminisms, representing perspectives in a process of continual review”.[41] Indeed, postmodern feminists have argued that this radical feminist view on family violence is generalising and essentialising; “generalisations about abusive men, peaceful women and powerless children are both inaccurate empirically and unhelpful to those who are given a statutory mandate to intervene to protect those at risk”.[42]

Instead, it is crucial to recognise that women are implicated in child abuse as well, which was largely neglected in the radical feminist perspective.[43] Indeed, in a recent study in 2014, it was found that 45% of the perpetrators in the United States of child maltreatment were men, and 54% were women.[44],[45]

Although it becomes more difficult to explain women’s violence to children as a consequence of patriarchy, postmodern feminists argue that it is necessary to shift focus to understanding how oppressive institutional definitions of motherhood, women, and children create ambivalent feelings that could potentially lead to violent behaviour towards children.[46],[47] For example, in the Netherlands the mother receives approximately six weeks of paid birth leave whereas fathers receive only two days.[48] This reinforces the oppressive stereotype that women are natural caregivers. Indeed, this institutional conception of parenthood, where the mother is expected to be more in close contact with the child, might lead, according to Gelles, to mothers experiencing a loss of freedom and increased feelings of frustration towards the child.[49] Likewise, Ong argues that ‘motherhood’ is a product of patriarchy which emphasizes the pressure already placed on mothers to take good care of their children.[50]

Additionally, insights from intersectional feminist theory stress that it is crucial to examine how these impositions differ across multiple systems of oppression. The links between domestic violence, child abuse, and mothering must be interrogated by simultaneously considering “women’s multiple social identities and several systems of oppression”.[51]

In an attempt to bring all these feminisms together, I would like to argue that bell hooks’ definition of feminism has the potential to do so. In Feminism is for Everybody, she states that “feminism is a movement to end sexism”, where sexism embodies systems of domination, subordination, and oppression.[52] All feminisms above are movements towards ending sexisms, in the sense that they explicitly interrogate systems of power and oppression, related to both the realm of the family and wider society. They show that this division between the personal and the political is not so clear in the case of child abuse and domestic violence. Indeed, all demonstrate that child abuse is an issue of unequal distributions of material and emotional resources, power, and privilege.

Potential Policy Outcomes

The two perspectives discussed above both potentially lead to different policy outcomes, though some overlap could be found as well. Both the social cultural and feminist perspective encourage policies to move away from solely investigating individual pathologies of child abuse, which is a habit due to an increased trust in behavioural studies, such as (social) psychology, that tend to focus on the individual.[53] Instead, both approaches see that there is a great value in tackling the issue of child abuse on a broader societal level.[54]

The social cultural perspective recognises that social and cultural norms, values, and laws are crucial to our understanding and practice of child abuse.[55] This has been shown by the successful case of Sweden, where law reform combined with public education was correlated with significant reductions in both positive attitudes towards and rates of child homicide, abuse, and rape.[56] This case encourages us to acknowledge the importance of changes in policies, education, and law with regards to the issue of child abuse. This is in line with Clarke’s argument on policymaking as an ongoing meaning making process that reflects attitudes in society.[57] Thus, according to this perspective the problem of child abuse is a problem of norms, values and legislations, which should therefore be contested and changed through law reform and public education.

Likewise, feminist perspectives argue for the restructuring of institutional norms and values. However, for feminists, these need to be questioned in terms of their oppressive nature with regards to sexist expectations of childhood, paternity, and maternity. In Featherstone’s words:

“We would need to develop practices which allow men, women and children to explore the meanings that gender, attachment, dependence, vulnerability and violence hold for them. Notions of mothering and fathering would surely be vital to interrogate, particularly in relation to biographical and relational significance. Notions of children as possessions, as a means of completing identity and, as status symbols, would surely jostle with notions of rights and entitlements to be heard and recognized as aspects of family scripts”.[58]

Feminists stress the direct relation between the political, institutional, and public values of child rearing, and the personal, individual, and private experience of the family. Therefore, in policies, emphasis should be placed on what impositions are placed on parents[59], and on the “differences in material and emotional resources between such [abusing] parents and crucially the different meanings attached to particular activities and practices”.[60] Likewise, attentiveness must be brought to how multiplicities of oppressions intersect and potentially create particular vulnerabilities to domestic violence and child abuse.[61],[62]


Current debates on child abuse would be strengthened by an engagement with the perspectives outlined in this paper. The first perspective is characterized by a recognition of the interplay of broad social cultural norms and values, and the occurrence of and attitudes towards child abuse. The second perspective represents the importance of taking a step back to question the impositions placed on fathers, mothers, and caregivers across culture, class, and race. Both perspectives encourage us to think of child abuse as a societal issue, even though it is tempting to consider it as a private problem because child abuse occurs behind closed doors. However, drawing from sociological insights, it becomes clear the high prevalence of child abuse is something in need for a public discussion.

What we can learn from potential policy outcomes outlined in the previous section is that individual interventions alone are insufficient to solve the issue of child abuse. Instead, it is crucial to systematically interrogate and compare norms, values, and impositions placed on mothers, fathers, and caregivers, followed by a reformation of national laws and public education. The case of Sweden shows that these steps lead to a significant reduction in violence towards children.

Needless to say, it remains important to engage with the issue of child abuse at different levels as well. Belsky designed a four-level approach to child abuse; that is ontogenic development, which is concerned with “what individual parents bring to the situation, their developmental background and experiences”; the microsystem, “which is concerned with the interaction of individuals within the family”; exosystem, “the immediate social environment within which the family functions”; and the macrosystem, “broader cultural factors, such as cultural attitudes toward violence”[63]. Arguably, most research on child abuse centres around the first three levels. This is because we are living in ‘un-sociological’ times, in which the individual is privileged over the collective.[64] This research, however, focused on the latter level, though it could be argued that the power of the sociological imagination is to see that all these levels are interconnected, and related to space and time. This is why it is crucial to keep on engaging with the issue of child abuse from sociological perspectives.

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